Poles in Iceland (3): The Impact of Economic Crisis on Migration

There is no doubt that migration phenomenon is embedded in the realm of global economy. The inequalities and differences in development between countries, job deficiency and unemployment, segmentation of labour markets and revolution in transportation and communication, have a great significance for migration trends, flows and patterns (cf. Koser 2009). Thus, it is not surprising that every economic crisis and financial turbulences have an impact on how migration phenomena are perceived, understood and analysed.

In the XX century we have seen how migration flows were decreased and/or increased due to particular economic collapses. The Great Depression of 1930, the economic crisis in 1970s–1990s, and the Asian Crisis of 1997-1998 showed crucial transformations in types of migration and the reactions of nation-states migration policies (cf. Dobson et al. 2009; Green & Winters 2010; Papademetriou & Terrazas A. 2009; Rogers et al. 2009; Skeldon 2010). The relations between economic turbulences and migration are monitored by Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) since the 1960’. OECD statistics and rapports show that there is a direct correlation between economic cycles and net migration. Considering however the recent crisis of 2008 we notice that there is ‘something’ different, which cannot be simply analysed using the frameworks of previous crisis (Castles & Miller 2010; Martin 2009). Due to global interconnectedness of contemporary world, the latest recession hit major parts of the globe almost simultaneously – at least in the context of high and middle income countries – creating a domino effect. It dramatically transformed the context for international migration raising some crucial questions concerning: the impact of the crisis on contemporary migration patterns; nations responses and regulations of migration flows; and the relations between host societies and migrants in the context of job crisis. The official strategies of response are usually framed in the profound austerity measures, which cause feelings of anxiety and discount in societies. In this context, migrants often play role of a scapegoat and are exposed to prejudices, discriminations, abuses, marginalisations and stigmatisation – common responses of host societies (cf. Castels & Vezzoli 2009; Tilly 2011).

In general, the consequences of economic collapse have transformative effects on migration, which can be classified as: effects on the mobility and movement; and effects on the migration policies (Beets & Willekens 2009). The former concerns individuals and families for whom migration is a sort of life-strategy. Many migrants decide to move to other countries in order to gain better education, find better-paid jobs, re-unite with family, or – speaking more generally – find a better place for the future. Economic turbulences decrease and hinder such possibilities of movement leaving migrants with fewer opportunities to enhance their lives. On the other hand, for migrants who are already adapted to the host society and who actively participate in the labour market (constructions and service sectors), the recession may bring a peril of losing job, precarious work contracts, and unemployment (Beets & Willekens 2009). Their response to such factors might be either return, moving to another location, or – in case of more experienced migrants – finding new livelihood strategies. Strategies of official (nation-state) response, in turn, often result in ‘motility’ regulations. Motility signifies not only the movement, but rather the combination of mobility and Foucauldian ‘governmentality’ (cf. Glick Schiller & Salazar 2013; Recchi 2008). Nation-states are in power to regulate different flows of people and resources, close and open the borders, and decide which ‘type’ of migration is needed and which is not. All these factors and effects of economic turbulences generate interesting field of research, which still needs to be explored due to newly phase of global economy.

The friction between official actions, nation-state policies and migrants’ livelihood strategies may result in emergent forces, which can transform the burning issue into some ‘new quality’. For example: due to precarious aspect of migrants lives, they themselves might find new opportunities and construct creative strategies that show their agency and civil actions (they may participate in civil society organizations; they may collaborate despite different ethnic and national backgrounds while muddling through the crisis, etc.). Importantly, such an assumption and approach admit the insurmountable nature of oppositions inherent in a social life and situates them in a many-voiced context organised around the idea of difference.

The research context of Polish migrants facing the effects of recent crisis has been scarcely investigated (cf. Barbulescu 2009; Krings et al. 2009). The research is quantitative and mainly conducted in the context of decision making (returning or staying?) among Poles in the UK and Ireland, without any deepen analysis of migrants individual agency. There are also few accounts attempting to explore the effect of crisis on Poles living in Iceland (cf. Budyta-Budzyńska 2011; Eydal & Ottósdóttir 2009; Wojtyńska & Zielińska 2010). Although this literature is very interesting and important, there is no profound analysis of formal and/or informal ways of livelihood strategies, except some general ‘types’ of responses and the use of unemployment benefits (Budyta-Budzyńska 2011: 102-113). Authors pose interesting questions and point some relevant direction, but at the same time they admit that further research is needed.

In my research, I will attempt to fill out the existing analytical gaps and provide a comparative anthropological aspect to previous research efforts. By merging the global and the local in anthropological fieldwork, I will try to answer more general questions: Does crisis cause increased migration or is it rather the other way around? How does the relation between crisis and migration manifest itself in the life stories of individual migrants and in diaspora experiences? What is the development of immigration politics, citizenship policies and integration policies in European societies from a comparative perspective?


Barbulescu R. (2009) The Economic Crisis and its Effects for Intra-European Movement: Mobility patterns and State responses. COMPAS Working Paper, pp. 1–25.

Beets G., Willekens, F. (2009) ‘The Global Economic Crisis and International Migration: An Uncertain Outlook.’ Vienna Yearbook of Population Research, pp. 19–38.

Budyta-Budzyńska M. (2011) Islandzki kryzys finansowy a strategie adaptacyjne Polaków na Islandii. Research Rapport, pp. 91–122.

Castles S., Vezzoli S. (2009) The Global Economic Crisis and Migration: Temporary Interruption or Structural Change?. Working Paper, Paradigmes, No. 2.

Castles S., Miller M.J. (2010) Migration and the global economic crisis: one year on. Paper posted at Palgrave Macmillan website for The Age of Migration.

Dobson J., et al. (2009) On the Move? Labour Migration in Times of Recession. London: Policy Network.

Eydal G.B., Ottósdóttir G. (2009) Immigration and the economic crisis: The case of Iceland. Working Papers No 4, Reykjavík: Þjóðmálastofnun Háskóla Íslands.

Glick Schiller N., Salazar N.B. (2013) ‘Regimes of Mobility Across the Globe.’ Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 39(2):183–200.

Green T., Winters, A. (2010) Economic crises and migration: learning from the past and the present. Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalisation and Poverty, Working Paper 31.

Koser K. (2009) ‘The Impact of Financial Crises on International Migration.’ IOM, pp. 5–40.

Martin, P. (2009) ‘Recession and migration: a new era for labor migration?.’ International Migration Review 43(3):671–91.

Krings T., et al. (2009) ‘Migration and recession: Polish migrants in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.’ Sociological Research Online 14(2).

Papademetriou D.G., Terrazas A. (2009) Immigrants and the Current Economic Crisis: Research Evidence. Policy Challenges, and Implications, Washington: Migration Policy Institute.

Recchi E. (2008) ‘Cross-state mobility in the EU: trends, puzzles and consequences.’ European Societies 10(2):197–224.

Rogers A., Anderson B., Clarke N. (2009) Recession, Vulnerable Workers and Immigration: Background Report. Oxford: Centre on Migration, Policy and Society.

Skeldon R. (2010) The Current Global Economic Crisis and Migration: Policies and Practice in Origin and Destination. Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalisation and Poverty: Working Paper 32.

Tilly Ch. (2011) ‘The impact of the economic crisis on international migration: a review.’ Work Employment Society 25:675–692.

Wojtyńska A., Zielińska M. (2010) ‘Polish migrants in Iceland facing the financial crisis’. In G. Jóhannesson, H. Björnsdóttir (eds.) Rannsóknir í félagsvísindum XI. Erindi flutt á ráðstefnu í október. Reykjavík: Félagsvísindastofnun Háskóla Íslands, pp. 1–11.


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